Field of Study: Occupational Safety and Health
Occupational safety and health programs prepare people to monitor and inspect work places to ensure health and safety standards are met. Students learn safety standards and how to test for health hazards. They also learn to train workers in on-the-job safety.
Everybody knows that coal mining is a dangerous job. And if you saw the movie "The Perfect Storm" (2000), you probably appreciate the dangers of fishing for a living. But almost any job has some potential for injuring you or making you sick. White-collar workers and chicken-part cutters share joint problems caused by repetitive motions. Some office workers suffer from headaches, coughing, and other symptoms of "sick building syndrome."
As an occupational safety and health technician, you are a specialist who deals with these kinds of work place problems. You test a site for chemical and biological contaminants. You measure levels of radiation, glare, and noise. You analyze data about injury and absenteeism to detect patterns. You observe and interview workers and supervisors. You write a report with recommendations for resolving the problems you find. You may give a presentation to management. You may also help workers improve their work habits so that they can avoid injury and illness. For example, you may show word processing operators how to take stretching breaks to avoid joint problems.
You can enter this field at a number of educational levels. With an associate degree, you can work as a research technician gathering data. You can earn this degree with two years of full-time study beyond high school. But fewer than 10 colleges offer this program. With four years of postsecondary education, you can earn a bachelor's degree and work at a somewhat higher level of responsibility. But this program, too, is offered at fewer than 10 colleges. Some people enter this field with a bachelor's in a subject that can be relevant. For example, a degree in statistics could be useful to someone who is part of a research team working in this field. A degree in biology might be useful preparation for working for a government bureau as an inspector.
With a bachelor's and a few years of experience on the job, you may be able to apply for certification. Certification in a specialty can help you advance in your career. To learn more about it, contact some of the agencies listed among the Resources for this program.
You may choose to enter this field with a master's degree. You do this by getting a bachelor's degree in science or math and then doing one or two years of study in the specific field of occupational safety and health. With this degree, you can work at a supervisory level or as a consultant. The American Board of Industrial Hygiene approves about 20 master's-level programs. If you enter this field with a lower degree, later you may seek a master's to upgrade your professional standing.
At all levels, the educational programs for this field include a number of science courses, since health problems can have causes that are chemical (e.g., toxic fumes), physical (e.g., radiation), or biological (e.g., molds). You study math so that you can analyze data and reach scientific conclusions. As you might expect, the higher the degree you seek, the more advanced are the science and math you study. You also learn research methods you will use on the job. In fact, many programs include supervised work experience in this field, where you work with professionals and study their methods.